Much has been made of Vladimir Putin’s 15-year career in the KGB, where he spent his formative years as a spy for the Soviet Union. The KGB label conjures up associations with midnight knocks at the door, Siberian labor camps and poison-tipped umbrellas.
Yet in the dying days of the Soviet Union, the KGB was in internal tumult. On the one hand, its agents had been trained to uphold the one-party dictatorship. On the other, they possessed the information to grasp the unsustainability of the decrepit communist system. It was none other than Soviet leader Yuri Andropov, a former KGB chief, who initiated timid economic reform and cultivated Mikhail Gorbachev as his successor. Gorbachev’s belated perestroika (restructuring) led to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Gennady Gudkov, 55, was trained in counterintelligence and spent ten years in the KGB. Like many colleagues, including Putin, Gudkov quit in the early 1990s. Gudkov started a private security company and entered politics in 2001, when he was elected as a Duma deputy from his hometown of Kolomna outside Moscow. Today, Gudkov is one of the most outspoken government critics from the Fair Russia party.
Gudkov was reelected in the disputed December parliamentary elections that sparked massive anti-government rallies. He and other opposition deputies were criticized for not giving up their seats out of protest. But Gudkov’s idea is different: he wants to transform the Kremlin-controlled legislature from the inside.
I met Gudkov at the first big demonstration in Moscow on December 10. He was marching to Bolotnaya Square with his son Dmitry, 32, who had just won a first term in parliament. I have since spoken with the duo on various occasions. What the father lacks in charisma, he makes up with his calm, down-to-earth manner. And what the son wants for experience, he compensates with energy, earnestness and good looks. I interviewed Gennady Gudkov in late March, after he had announced the formation of the Social Democratic Union.
On uniting Russia’s leftwing forces
A government-sponsored reform, rushed through parliament after the December protests, will simplify the registration of new parties, enlivening the political scene but potentially splitting the opposition into tiny factions. Gudkov wants to act swiftly to unite Russia’s leftwing forces into one great coalition.
Gudkov has to tread carefully. His own Fair Russia party, originally a Kremlin project designed to draw votes from the Communists, already describes itself as social democratic. Gorbachev, for one, also considers himself a social democrat. Gudkov calls the Social Democratic Union a “movement” that is open to any like-minded citizens, from Communist Duma deputies to adherents of street activist Sergei Udaltsov’s Left Front.
A founding meeting will be held in April, Gudkov said. The organizational structure will then take shape and regional sections be formed. Eventually, candidates of various parties may run for office with the Social Democratic Union’s seal of approval, Gudkov said.
On the future of Fair Russia
I was confused by the plan, especially since Gudkov is one of the most prominent Fair Russia leaders. He isn’t known to be particularly close to Sergei Mironov, the bland party chief who half-heartedly challenged Putin in the March 4 presidential election, coming in last place with 4 percent of the vote. Was the Social Democratic Union just a cover for an altogether new political party?
“It’s a movement, not a party,” Gudkov repeated when I was finally sitting across from him in the American Bar & Grill, which happens to be located below the Interfax press center.
Gudkov’s unswerving message was unity, not schism. Yet he allowed for the possibility that the movement may turn into a party in the future. What form the union ends up taking will be decided “maybe in a year or two.”
“Even the ruling party decides nothing. Real power is in the hands of small group of people around Putin. And they don’t share it with anybody.”
And what happens to Fair Russia, which itself was cobbled out of smaller political parties?
“Fair Russia must make great internal changes to meet external demands,” Gudkov said. “That means de-bureaucratizing the party, strengthening the role of the regions, a better-defined internal structure, a renewed leadership, and new ideas. Then the party will be normal.”
He might as well have been speaking about the ruling United Russia party, which is so discredited that Putin has all but disowned it.
The four parties in parliament are all so rotten that it would be easier to found new ones than try to reform them.
On the rebirth of politics in Russia
I asked Gudkov if the party reform marked the rebirth of political life in Russia. He cautioned that the appearance of new parties could only be considered part of the process.
“Real politics hasn’t yet appeared. That will only appear when there is fair competition, free elections, independent mass media, and an independent judiciary,” he said.
“Even the ruling party decides virtually nothing. Real power is in the hands of the bureaucracy, of bureaucratic clans, of a very small group of people around Putin. And they don’t share it with anybody. Parties are outside the field of play.”
On the government’s response to the protests
Gudkov is dubious of any gestures by the government that hint at liberalization, including recent legislative initiatives on the registration of parties and the direct election of governors.
“The government isn’t demonstrating any readiness to share power. On the contrary, they’ve been toughening up recently,” he said. Gudkov recalled a hatchet job broadcast on state-run NTV blackening the opposition. He cited the apparent use of the security services to record private conversations among opposition leaders, including himself.
“They’re hoping the protests will run out of breath and get weaker. Their principle is to stall for time.”
“The government’s tough response goes beyond the bounds of the law,” Gudkov said. Not surprisingly then, there’s a certain radicalization taking place within the protest movement, he added.
“They’re hoping the protests will run out of breath and get weaker,” Gudkov said. “In that case, it won’t be necessary to have a dialogue or make any concessions. Their main principle is to stall for time.”
On Putin’s choice
At the same time, Putin is walking a fine line. Not only will the government face political demands from an energized opposition, but it will have to answer for a host of festering social problems.
“The oil price plays an important role but not the only one,” Gudkov said. “A high oil price won’t stop corruption, the war in the North Caucasus, a sharp rise in prices and a warped bureaucracy. We have a high oil price now – but all those problems, too.”
I asked Gudkov how long he gave Putin once he takes the presidential oath for the third time in May.
“It depends on him,” said Gudkov. “He could serve for another six years under the condition there be a real coalition government and real political reforms that begin with real dialogue with the opposition.
“If not, there could be a situation in two or three years where there will have to be early parliamentary elections, the formation of a coalition government, serious political reforms and the limitation of presidential powers.
“That will be the only way to preserve stability in the country.”